Football Preview 2017: Reigning champion JMU ready for challenges

JMU head football coach Mike Houston looks on during the Dukes' win over North Dakota State University in the FCS semifinals on Dec. 16 in Fargo, North Dakota. Courtesy photo/JMU Athletics Communications

HARRISONBURG — James Madison University’s football team is aware of the challenges they will face this season as the reigning Football Championship Subdivision national champions. The players say they are excited and ready for the challenge.

“I think there’s two ways you can look at it: you can pretend it’s not there, or you can just accept the fact that everybody’s going to give you their best shot and let it motivate you,” JMU senior quarterback Bryan Schor said. “And I think that’s something that this team has done. And we’re definitely not a team that shies away from anything. So we know that people are going to want to take us down. And we’re going to attack each week like it’s our last. And we’re going to see what happens.”

The Dukes went 14-1 last season, including a 12-game win streak to end the season. The win streak is the current longest winning streak in FCS or Football Bowl Subdivision.

JMU has plenty of reasons to be excited for the upcoming season.

The Dukes return nine starters on defense, including safety Raven Greene, who was selected as a STATS Preseason All-American.

Greene started all 15 games, had 70 tackles and a team-high six interceptions. Senior Jordan Brown also returns at safety, with the other safety spot up for grabs.

Juniors Rashad Robinson returns at cornerback with junior Curtis Oliver and redshirt junior Jimmy Moreland also seeing plenty of playing time there last year as well.

The Dukes lost Gage Steele to graduation, but still return a bevy of linebackers in their 4-2-5 defense. Junior Dimitri Holloway, redshirt senior Kyre Hawkins and senior Brandon Hereford, who will miss the first four games of this season due to suspension, all started at least a few games at linebacker last year. The Dukes also added redshirt sophomore Gus Little, a transfer from the University of Maryland, and Landon Word, a sophomore transfer from the University of Virginia.

Andrew Ankrah leads the way on the defensive line for the Dukes. Ankrah, a 6-foot-4, 251-pound redshirt senior, had 44 tackles, six for a loss, and 3.5 sacks last year.

He was a STATS FCS Preseason All-American selection, and Ankrah said that he’s worked hard on trying to improve in the offseason.

“My mindset is just to keep working hard each and every day, even if I’m not perfect,” Ankrah said. “I’m just looking to improve on things that I’m not so great at, but I’m working to make my weaknesses my strengths and trying to increase my strengths. It’s encouraging to know that I have things I can work on. And it’s inspiring that I can come out here every day with a great attitude, with great teammates and coaches that can coach me up to become better.”

Redshirt junior Darrious Carter, redshirt senior Simeyon Robinson and senior Cornell Urquhart all started last year for the Dukes on the defensive line. JMU also added Ron’Dell Carter, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound redshirt sophomore transfer from Rutgers University.

The offense will once again be led by Schor, who threw for 3,002 yards and 29 touchdowns. Schor also ran for 569 yards and 10 scores.

JMU lost starting tailback Khalid Abdullah to graduation, but the cupboard is far from bare.

Junior Trai Sharp (617 yards and five touchdowns in 2016) and senior Taylor Woods (240 yards and five touchdowns) return from last year’s team. Redshirt senior Cardon Johnson also returns, after suffering a season-ending injury in the ninth game of the season. Johnson ran for 704 yards and eight touchdowns before his injury. Johnson had 1,037 yards and 10 touchdowns in his sophomore season.

JMU added Marcus Marshall to the roster in the offseason. Marshall is a junior transfer from Georgia Tech. He led the Yellow Jackets with 624 rushing yards last season and four touchdowns.

The Dukes lost several wide receivers to graduation, including Brandon Ravenel and Rashard Davis. However, the Dukes still have plenty of depth at the position.

Redshirt senior Terrance Alls returns after starting all but one game last season. Alls will miss the first four games of the season due to suspension. Senior John Miller and redshirt senior Ishmael Hyman also saw plenty of time at wide receiver last year. Redshirt sophomore Riley Stapleton should also see a lot of playing time, after having a strong spring with the Dukes.

“The thing we focused on with the new guys is we know each other,” Schor said. “I know Ish (Hyman), I know Riley (Stapleton), I know John (Miller). I know all the wide receivers out there. I’ve been with them for years. So the one thing we focus on is just that we’re on the same page with everything and our chemistry is good. It didn’t take me long to adapt to them, and I think we’re in a pretty good state right now.”

2014 Strasburg graduate Jonathan Kloosterman, who has been suspended for the first two games of the season, returns at tight end for his senior season. Kloosterman was a STATS FCS Preseason All-American selection. Sophomore Brandon Carlton will also see playing time at tight end.

The Dukes lost three starters off the offensive line, but return 2013 Millbrook graduate A.J. Bolden and Aaron Stennie. They have plenty of lineman vying for the other three spots including 2015 Skyline graduate Gerren Butler, sophomore Mac Patrick and redshirt sophomore Jahee Jackson. The Dukes added two transfers in redshirt sophomore E.J. Donahue (University of Maryland) and sophomore Pika Leota (University of South Carolina).

Houston said true freshmen Jake Glavin and Liam Fornadel were also in the mix for playing time on the offensive line.

“It’s kind of unexpected because freshmen usually aren’t that far along,” Houston said of the pair. “But those two — Liam Fornadel and Jake Glavin — they’re going to be special. They’re playing really well right now.”

Tyler Gray, a 2015 Millbrook graduate, returns as the team’s placekicker. True freshman Harry O’Reilly and redshirt freshman Jeremiah McBride will be vying for the punting duties.

With winning the national title comes a lot of attention and expectations and Ankrah said he thinks the team is doing a good job of handling it.

“There’s definitely hype outside about us, and we try not to pay too much attention to it,” Ankrah said. “We try to stay focused on getting better each and every day. We have a lot of guys who have have type of maturity on our team to focus on the day ahead, and all you can focus on is the here and now.”